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Collapse Of Residential Building Near Miami Beach Spurs Questions Of Construction Quality


News of the partial collapse of a 12-story residential building in Surfside, Florida during the early morning of June 24 has spread nationally due to its horrific and puzzling nature. One hundred fifty-nine people remain unaccounted for as rescue crews battle severe weather during their attempts to find survivors amid the rubble. The investigation has overwhelmingly led to more questions as experts try to determine how the structure failed so dramatically. The building, constructed in 1981, is not considered “old,” and in fact roof work had currently be underway before the structure’s collapse. Speculation includes a the formation of a possible sinkhole, a disturbance from construction in the area or the aforementioned roof work being to blame for the implosion, however others are second-guessing the quality of the construction.

Construction projects like these involve design professionals including architects, engineers and structural consultants. When hired, these professionals have a legal duty to provide services that fully meet the legal standard of care. When a construction failure like that of the Surfside collapse occurs, an inevitable dispute will arise over whether or not this issue was caused by a design professional breaching their duty of care. If this does turn out to be the case, the design professional may be held liable for the damages.

Breach of the Standard of Care

In Florida, the standard of care for construction design professionals is clearly articulated in the case of School Board of Broward County v. Pierce Goodwin. According to the court, architects and engineers must provide services that meet a level of competence and diligence that would be used by similar professionals under similar circumstances. The failure to live up to this standard is professional malpractice. Specific forms of construction design malpractice include:

  • Flawed design plans;
  • The failure of the professional to properly supervise the project;
  • The use of faulty surveys in the design or development of the project;
  • Failure to adequately monitor to the progress of the project;
  • Lack of required inspection;
  • The failure to use materials of adequate quality; or
  • Violation of state or local building codes.

Finally, it is also important to note that individual contracts can stipulate that professionals will be held to a heightened standard of care. Architects and engineers must always meet the performance obligations set forth in their contract.

 What Damages are Available?

There are generally two distinct categories of damages that may be available in construction design professional malpractice cases:

  • Direct damages: These are damages that are related directly to an injury, or property damage, that stems from the malpractice. For example, the cost of correcting a design-related construction defect would be classified as a direct damage.
  • Consequential damages: Consequential damages can be more significant than direct damages, and are typically more fiercely contested. Consequential damages include indirect losses that stem from the malpractice, such as lost profits.

Recovering damages in these cases, especially any consequential damages, is incredibly complex. It can involve both tort law and contract law. Ultimately, the precise terms of the contract between the business and the design professional will make a major impact on any potential award of damages. 

Defenses for Design Professionals

A design professional can escape liability if their attorney can demonstrate that the plaintiff does not have enough evidence to prove negligence. Beyond that they may also be able to escape liability by:

  • Proving that the claim came after the statute of limitations expired;
  • Reducing their liability under the theory of comparative negligence;
  • Showing that recovery for the design issue would result in betterment for the plaintiff;
  • Establishing that they have immunity under the contract through a liability waiver; or
  • Using the legal concept of estoppel, to prove that liability should be excused.

The situation in Surfside is ongoing, and experts predict a continuing search and rescue effort that may last weeks. Therefore, the investigation is likely to take months, if not years, to fully understand. In the meantime, there will undoubtedly be close reviews of construction in the area and beyond to ensure something like this never happens again.

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